The Penguin Annual Lecture 2014 by Dan Brown

The line started queuing up around 4, three hours before the lecture was commenced to start at 7. Teenagers with bright enthusiastic faces and copies of Inferno or Da Vinci Code tucked under their arms stood chatting outside the famed NCPA theater. College students from nearby cities like Pune and Ahmedabad could also be seen standing in the perpetually growing queue. The excitement in the air was palpable. Mixed among the crowd were middle-aged literary veterans, calmly surveying the chaotic youngsters. The gates opened at 6:15. Seats were randomly allocated seats on ‘first come, first serve’ basis, which essentially people (read: the author) who came first were allotted seats in a far off corner, while people who arrived later got front row seats. Well played Crossword!

All complaints however died out when the man of the hour himself walked in, after having been introduced by Indian author, Ravi Subramanian. As the legendary writer of Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown walked in, the entire auditorium erupted into cheers and applause. The entire audience were on their feet, clapping hard and long. He endeared himself to the hearts of all youngsters in the audience when he started his speech by exclaiming surprise at the young age of the majority of the audience. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?!” he jovially asked

For me, and most other members of the audience, this was a dream come true. To be in the same room as one of my favourite authors isn’t something I could have ever dreamed of. The lecture on ‘Religion and Science’ was delivered to perfection by the author. Mr. Brown started by telling us about his paradoxical childhood, with a church organist as his mother and a mathematics teacher as his father. He even showed us their respective car number plates. His mother’s read ‘Kyrie’ (Greek for Lord), and his father’s read ‘Metric’. He then expounded upon his theory about the god of gaps, wherein he said that whenever the ancient Greeks and Romans experienced a gap in their knowledge, something they couldn’t explain, they invented a god to fill in the gap. So infertility was considered to be due to a falling out from the goddess Juno, plagues were brought upon by the wrath of an angry god and hurricanes were caused by the god of the sea, Poseidon. In a style reminiscent of his famous character Professor Robert Langdon, Mr. Brown further explained that as science discovered the logical reasons behind these events, the pantheon of Roman and Greek gods slowly died out. Today we turn to God for answers to those questions that science cannot answer – where do we come from? why are we here? where do we go after we die? – and in a way, we are still worshipping the god of the gaps.

One of his most powerful statements, according to this author, was when he talked about world religions. The writer said that all human beings have similar spiritual experiences: while looking at the star-lit heavens, we all have at times acknowledged a higher power beyond our understanding, and yet we follow different religions.

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It is not religion, but language that divides us, he proclaimed. When we take metaphors as history, the cosmic space as a concrete space, and when we argue over the semantics of god that we are divided. Otherwise all religions preach a similar message of kindness over cruelty, and of love and peace.

“To grow up in a world without religious prejudices is a privilege, and not one many of us enjoy”, he said.

After his speech, Dan Brown engaged in a conversation with famous Indian author, Ashwin Sanghvi. The conversation steered to many topics. When asked about the two Hollywood blockbusters Angels and Demons and Da Vinci Code, based on his novels, Dan Brown praised the hard work of actor Tom Hanks and the entire filmmaking crew. He said:

The magic of a book is in its ability to be different things for different people…When a book becomes a movie the quantum wave collapses, and all possibilities die out except one…A movie is like someone else’s child. All an author can ask for is that the filmmakers stay true to the pulse, heartbeat and message of the book.

The talk was as engaging as it was informative. His humourous jokes cracked the audience up,every now and then. The minutes flew swiftly by, and the lecture was over too soon for anyone’s liking. The silver lining was Mr. Sanghvi’s question, when he asked Mr. Brown if his protagonist, Robert Langdon, would soon be following his steps to Mumbai. Though Mr. Brown’s reply was diplomatic, hope lingers. We can’t wait to welcome him back to these shores again!

Dictates of My Dharma

Today while reading this post on Forgiveness, written by a close friend (I would recommend it to everyone. She writes well, and unlike me, on spiritual and moral issues), and it got me thinking about forgiveness and trust.
It reminded me of a story my father repeatedly narrates to me and my sister  A priest sees a chameleon drowning in the river,  and so he picks it up. In its fear, it bites the priest, who drops it, but then again picks it up. It bites him again, and the chain continues. A passersby asks the priest: why do you keep saving the animal who bites you? Let the ungrateful creature die!

The priest said, it’s his dharma (or duty) to bite me. It’s my dharma to save him.

I am not a very spiritual person. Spirituality is a gift am yet to receive, but I do like this story. I guess there are a thousand ways one can interpret it. But I will tell you how I interpret it. I had a very close friend, who made some very bad choices in life. All his other friends either broke all ties with him, or apathetically ‘tolerated’ him , while mentally cursing him. I on the other hand kept chiding him whenever I felt he was wasting his potential; and would get snubbed repeatedly in turn. People would tell me that I should just ‘let him be’. That I should ignore him and move on with my life. I couldn’t because my dharma told me as a friend it was my duty to try my best to help a friend, if I felt he was doing something wrong. Till date I don’t know whether or not I was write.
Sometimes some people will  tell me that a particular individual isn’t good or trustworthy, that they are Judas incarnate, and that I shouldn’t thus trust them. I believe that one should trust a person, till one is proven wrong. And even if I am proven wrong, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t trust the next person who comes along.
Sometimes my mother will tell me that I shouldn’t confide all my secrets to one person, since there are chances that they might betray me. What she doesn’t understand is that the day my friends betray me, it wouldn’t really matter even if they shout out all my secrets from the rooftops, because the day my friends betray me, everything is already over….
The day I stop trusting my friends, I will become a suspicious and lonely person, breathing but not alive.

Things You See on Mumbai Locals #1

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Mumbaikars, especially those staying in the suburbs spend nearly an hour or more everyday traveling. How do you utilize  this time?
The lady whose hands I have captured in the above picture is typing out the name of Hindu Gods on a special notebook with grids, that help you keep count of the number of time you have written the name. After you finish a certain number (I think it’s 108 but am not sure; and it may also vary) you get to have one wish fulfilled; or one sin forgiven. Kind of a neat practice, don’t you think? Like reward points on a shopping card!

But jokes apart, I still find it admirable that within the crowded rush-hour, this lady manages to find God and spirituality,

Humanity: It is all Grey

Today’s Daily Prompt:The friendly, English-speaking extraterrestrial you run into outside your house is asking you to recommend the one book, movie, or song that explains what humans are all about. What do you pick? 

One of my favourite poems, especially for its illuminating perspective about humans ins ‘The Tyger’ by William Blake. The poem runs like this:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
 
In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

 

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

 

What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

 

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water’d heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
 
Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
 
The poem talks about Blake’s admiration for the tiger that stands for might. But then he raises questions as to the Creator of the Tiger. Which divine entity, Blake asks, dared to create such a magnificent beast? Was it God or the Devil? If it was God then how could someone who is supposed to be kind and benevolent create a violent creature like the Tiger, after creating the meek lamb. The Tiger would in course of time attack the lamb and cause it distress. How then can God be benevolent and omniscient if it does nothing to prevent the Lamb’s suffering, instead gives rise to it? 
I think the poem presents a perfect representation of the dichotomy of Good and Evil, of Happiness and Misery, that so characterizes human life. It is only through Misery that one can appreciate Happiness. Evil is needed to illuminate all that is pure in Good. Without Evil, Goodness loses its sanctity. This is the truth of human life, I feel. It is hard to divide the world into the black and white, the good and bad. They are too closely inter-linked to be separated. It is all grey.  

25th March 2014: An Year in Review

So, bring in the trumpets and the fanfare – I have successfully completed one year as a blogger. I have gone through all the ups and downs of blogging – the angst over a post, the obsessive urge to look through your statistics again and again, rejoicing over the number of likes, feverishly blessing every single one of them – and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my followers and readers, for finding this blog and me worthy enough of your attention, and time. A very humble thank you. All of you are the reason I write, my inspiration, and a reason to bring a smile on my face. There was even a period of severe blues, when I withdrew completely from the blogging world, but a year later, despite all obstacles, my blog is still alive. That to me is a moment to celebrate ( and I did, by breaking my diet, and having a chocolate pastry earlier today). Exactly a year back I wrote this post https://mitraarchita1995.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/is-man-one-of-gods-blunders-or-is-god-one-of-mans-blunders/

And was reminded of it again, when today in the college canteen, a friend of a friend, asked me: “Are you an atheist?”

“No”, I told him. “I am an agnostic.”

“Oh, that’s just confused”, he dismissed me with a shrug.

Is it? I always thought that being an agnostic meant shunning away worldly worship and elaborate rituals for true faith in God’s love within your heart. I have never thought of God as a grandiose figure, but as a friend. Is that what it means to be an agnostic? Or is it just being stuck between skepticism and spirituality?

Is Man one of God’s blunders? Or is God one of Man’s blunders?

“Is Man one of God’s blunders? Or is God one of Man’s blunders?”
Galaxy

The above is an interesting conundrum put forth by Friedrich Nietzsche. The existence of God is a widely argued and broadly criticized question, raised again and again since time immemorial by different atheists and defended by theists. The funny thing is that despite these numerous arguments, no one has yet been able to find a logical and widely accepted answer. In this essay, I shall critically approach and ponder over both the opposite viewpoints, and try to reach an appropriate answer. 

Does God really exist? A question each one of us have asked ourselves, either in moments of great emotional anguish or triumphant successes. I will use the following example to illustrate my point – a student returns home after having secured the top rank in his examinations. His mother immediately starts thanking God for His blessings over her son. The child wonders whether his success was an attribute of his own hard work or of God’s blessings. The next time, if he does not study as hard as before, but is doggedly regular in his prayers and offerings to the deity, would he achieve the same glory? Surely not! Then is hard work or divine blessings the reason behind the child’s triumph in his exams. Another instance can be of a poor, honest farmer who is cheated by an unscrupulous money-lender into usurping his land. The farmer seeks help from the police, but the officer dismisses the case, after having accepted a large enough bribe from the money-lender. Both the corrupt men enjoy a prosperous life while the honest peasant watches his family slowly starve to death. Should he not then question his belief in the existence of God?

History tells us that ever since man walked on the soil of Earth he has worshipped a supreme power. At the very beginning of civilization, due to lack of scientific awareness mankind was unable to account for the various natural phenomenons. Anything that he could not answer, Man attributed to a divine power. Our ancestors, the Aryans worshipped natural elements like the Sun, Wind, Fire and Rain. Deities were certain human-akin figures who were said to be in charge of certain Natural Element, like Indra is considered to be the god of rainfall in Hindu religion. They practised religion in order to appease the gods through offerings and gifts, in return of grants and favours. They depended on the Sun and the Rain for nourishment so they prayed for sufficient sunshine and rainfall for their crops. They needed Fire for warmth, cooking food, and various other tasks but at the same time they feared it too. So they prayed to the Fire-God in order to tame and appease the Fire. Natural disasters were credited to the wrath of the gods. Greece and Roman civilization too followed a similar pattern of worship. They worshipped the sky and the rain through the Sky-God Zeus or Jupiter (in Rome). The rise and fall of tides depended on the mood of Poseidon or Neptune. Apollo drove the Sun’s chariot from the mountains to the Sea and his sister Artemis was the goddess of the Moon. Egyptians worshipped the Sun by the name of Amun-Ra. Animals which were beneficial to humankind too were worshipped, like the cow in Hindu and Greek cultures and the cat in Egyptian civilization. Many tribes in the rural parts of India worship the soil, as their benefactress. Thus, the idea of God first evolved from the natural elements and their keepers.

Slowly and steadily, certain men started claiming themselves to be incarnations of God. These lead to the birth of priests and prophets. These prophets asserted that they could interpret the signs of God. In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs claimed themselves to be manifestation of the gods, born to rule over the ignorant masses. The priests served as the physical connection between the supreme power and mankind.

The question which arises now is why did the common masses flock to these priests? Why do people even today, in the era of scientific awakening, visit temples before an auspicious task, like setting up a new business or a new job? The answer, I presume, lies in the intricacies of the working of the human mind. Ever since childhood, we want someone to look out for us, to help us in our need. When a child achieves something he wants his parents to praise him and reward him. The same applies in our belief of a divine, omnipresent and coherent being. The belief of God acts as a check on man. The idea that someone is watching all our actions boosts our self-confidence. There is a popular belief, mostly in Christian and Hindu religion that we are either rewarded or punished for our actions during our life, after death. This belief convinces many to help others, be kind and never deviate from the path of righteousness, as someone is watching. Often we are tempted by evils and vices. For example, a man may be enticed to steal from a shop at the middle of the night when there is no visible presence. But the belief in an omnipresent power, may just act as a check to this temptation. Belief in God strengthens our resolves, and weakens our vices.

Society cannot be consolidated without a firm set of rules and doctrines. Religion was evolved with the objective of tying society, and encouraging morals. Moral behaviour was promoted through the idea of God and divine punishment. In the period of scientific ignorance, it acted as the best possible check on all immorality and depravity. However if the question arises as to whether man can be moral without God, the answer will definitely be in the affirmative, which brings into question the importance and relevance of a Divine Spirit in our lives. Certain functionalists like Malinowski, believe that Religion helps in promoting social solidarity, as religious rituals tend to deal with those situation in an individual’s life which cause stress, for example death which Malinowski saw as socially destructive, as it takes a member of society away from the group. In a funeral ceremony, the society unites to deal with their loss and also to comfort the bereaved. A belief in immortality and a good after-life is also soothing to the bereaved.

Religion, though at first was developed for moral progress of man, soon became corrupted by the very sins it was trying to eradicate, namely selfishness and greed. Priests, who were believed to be communicators between helpless and ignorant mankind and the pervasive, supernatural spirit, turned avaricious and greedy. They began to amass land and property in the name of God. They believed themselves to be at par with divinity, and thus the supreme rulers of the society. Rapacious desires to obtain power and rule over large areas of land, lead to certain religious leaders try to spread their own set of beliefs. This led to conflicts of religion and religious wars. The crusades in the middle ages between the Roman Catholic Church and the Muslim faith are a good example of this. Thousands of innocent men and women were massacred in the ruthless bloodbath in the name of God. The modern day communal riots between different religious groups and modern religious wars can also be cited as an example when Man used God as an excuse to perpetuate violence. Religion which had previously helped in strengthening the bonds between men now became the prime cause for their merciless slaughter.

In Vedic India, the rigid caste system declared the position of Brahmins, the highest caste to be supreme. The Brahmins believed themselves to be pure, and thus kept away from the unclean and impure masses. People belonging to the lower castes had to face much discrimination and oppression at the hands of the higher caste. They were refused entry into temples or schools. They were not allowed to sit next to the members of higher castes, and the higher caste could not even have food prepared by a lower caste member. There were untouchability taboos and marriage was strictly bound within the caste. The discrimination went as far as to prevent people of the lower castes to access drinking water from the wells of the Brahmins. There was little improvement in their pitiable condition until independence.

Another notable example of futile bloodshed in the name of religion is the Holocaust of the Nazis, during and before the Second World War. Hitler believed himself and all Germans to be a member of a supreme race ‘Harrenvolk’. He believed that they were ordered by God to rule all mankind. He thus followed an expansionist policy, which ultimately culminated in the Second World War. Hitler went on an anti-semitic propaganda, as he believed Jews to be traitors who had led to the downfall of Germany in the First World War. This justified his cause of eradicating the entire Semitic race. He ruthlessly ordered a mass genocide against all members of this race. Thousands of Jews were killed in gas chambers and the concentration camps set up for this cause. More than six million Jews were exterminated in this manner. This lead to the Second World War, which was fought for a span of six long years and in which atom bombs were used for the first time. Over 50 million people were killed in this war, and again all in the ‘name of religion and God’. This inevitably raises the question – Is God a blunder of Man’s imagination? The above occurrences in history certainly agree with this point. God is just a fancy of the imagination of man’s ignorance, with no real basis in fact and truth. In the light of recent scientific discoveries, more and more men are starting to doubt the long held beliefs of divinity and supreme power. But as yet there are certain questions which remain to be answered, certain occurrences normally called as miracles yet to be explained.

Now, I would like to address the former part of the question posed – Is Man a blunder of God? Well, I think you ought to ask this question to an environmentalist before you ask me. In the natural world, man certainly possesses lesser strength and lesser agility than many others. Yet man has managed to survive against all odds for centuries due to one blessing of his – his brains. Men have a higher IQ level than most other organisms and he also has creativity and imagination. The latter two have especially helped man adapt to his surroundings and rise to the top of the pyramid. But gradually, especially in the recent decades, man has misused and exploited his surroundings to such an extent that he has disturbed the ecological balance through his activities which mostly stem from greed and avarice. Man has through intensive hunting led to the extinction of some species and endangered many others. Unlike most other predators that kill only for their survival and nourishment, man has killed and kills for sport, for fur, leather and other luxuries.

We have encroached forest land for agriculture and building houses. Industrialization and urbanisation has led to widespread deforestation and destruction of many ecosystems. Man has exploited the resources granted to him through overuse and misuse. We have polluted the air through burning fuels and continue to do so, even now. Just look out of the window in a busy street. There are so many cars passing, each emitting toxic fumes which contaminate the air. The ozone layer which prevents harmful ultraviolet rays from entering the Earth’s atmosphere is getting perforated by the harmful gas carbon dioxide the prime component of the fumes.

Air, water and land – man has gained control over all and in turn polluted all. Seas are contaminated from oil spills. The enormous piles of waste generated by us harm the land, as does the toxic fertilizers we insert in the soil, which provide short term benefits and long term losses.

It is written in the Bible that God created day and night in the first day, in the second sky and water, in the third grass and plants, in the fourth sun and moon, in the fifth day He created all animals and in the sixth He created man. Man then promptly usurped all others, exploited them, misused them and gradually destroyed them. Then according to me, of course God committed a folly by creating man. For he, destroyed all his other living creatures, and his wonderful creation of this very planet Earth, for Man will be the downfall of his nurturer – Mother Earth.

I believe that the question posed by Friedrich Nietzsche can never be fully answered, as both premises are true to certain extents. All in all, the answer is subjective and will differ from person to person, depending on their individual beliefs and faith.